Scams against seniors most prevalent in Florida

Scams against seniors most prevalent in Florida

Patricia, an Angie's List member in Tampa, Fla., says she used the List to keep her elderly aunt and uncle from losing about $3,700 to a company that wanted to charge $4,000 to replace their HVAC unit rather than repair it.

After learning of the scam, Patricia, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of retribution, instead hired highly rated Schmitt Inc. of Hudson, Fla., to make the repairs for $300. "Schmitt was awesome," she says. "I told them what the other company said needed to be replaced. They discredited that completely."

This time, she says, she stopped the scam before her uncle, 93, and aunt, 89, wrote a check. "If someone walks in and says they need something, they simply believe them," she says.

Florida leads the nation in percentage of people over age 65; it's also one of the nation's leaders in scams against seniors.

Seniors vs. Crime, a special project by the state's attorney general, investigates the bulk of these scams. It's staffed by 3,000 volunteers in 29 counties.

Retired New York City Police Department officer Pat Hanna, 71, oversees the 12-county Region 2, which includes Tampa. Last year, his region handled 378 cases - most involving HVAC scams - and reclaimed $400,000 for seniors, he says.

Criminals target seniors because they have steady income and older folks typically live by a code of honor that no longer exists, Hanna says. "A lot of seniors are from the old school," he says. "There was a time when you could shake someone's hand and that was commitment."

Frank Sage, 87, of Lakeland, Fla. says SafeGuard America, an Orlando security company on South Orange Blossom Trail, told him he had "won" a free security system. After installation, the technician handed him a bundle of papers to sign.

"I asked, 'What is this all about?' He said, 'That is just agreeing that the product has been installed to your satisfaction and that I cleaned up and instructed you on how to operate the system.' So I signed it. "All of a sudden, I get a bill for the whole system: $42.75 a month for three years," he adds. "They said I couldn't cancel because I signed a three-year contract."

Jill Kesses, legal manager with SafeGuard America's parent company, Safe Home Security in Connecticut, provided copies of several documents Sage signed, indicating he understood the cost, as well as a copy of the check he wrote to the company on the day the system was installed. She says Homeland Security of Tampa owns Sage's contract, but Homeland Security referred Angie's List to the Connecticut offices of Safe Home.

SafeGuard operates several locations under several names in Florida and Connecticut. The Connecticut headquarters is excluded from category and keyword searches on the List due to questionable business practices. At least two other locations in Florida have poor ratings.

Sage says he now runs everything by his wife, Betty, 49, who volunteers with Seniors vs. Crime. In retrospect, Betty Sage says her husband wasn't thinking clearly in 2008 following his former wife's death a few months earlier.

Sadly, she says, her generation was raised to question everything. "I was always told, 'There's nothing for free,'" she says.

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